Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays



Nº 7 – 2021 (1)

The Archive as Political Intervention: Migration and the Archive of Cinematic Mobility


Miguel Fernández Labayen, Yamila Díaz, Sonia Dueñas, Santiago Lomas y Tamara Moya (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) & Irene Gutiérrez (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)


This work analyzes two videos that are part of the Archive of Cinematic Mobility (ACM; available at https://humanidadesdigitales.uc3m.es/s/cine-de-movilidad/page/inicio). The Archive of Cinematic Mobility is a free access online repository created in the context of the research project “Cartografías del cine de movilidad en el Atlántico hispánico” (CSO2017-85290-P), funded by the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación del Gobierno de España and fondos FEDER. Its main goal is to gather films and videos that approach issues such as migration, exile, displacement, diaspora and refuge, making them available for researchers, filmmakers and broader audiences. First, the archive functions as a database, in which we compile information on commercial producers (of the history of cinema as a whole), made in Iberian-American countries; these films deal with human displacement. Second, ACM creates a forum to watch these productions, rescuing amateur, experimental and documentary films that focus on transnational migration. Last, ACM also presents the results of several educational workshops, made in partnership with associations devoted to film literacy, applied to the migratory context. To sum up, the Archive of Cinematic Mobility offers a continuously shifting collection, which is periodically updated, gathering fundamental information to think about the processes of human mobility on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s analyze two examples of this collection, as an entry point and catalyst to get deeper into these archives.

The dialogue between migratory archives in Diarios de frontera / Border Diaries (Irene Gutiérrez, 2013, 25’)

Video 1. Border Diaries (Irene Gutiérrez, 2013).

The first video belongs to Diarios de la frontera / Border Diaries, a short film made by Ceuta filmmaker and academic Irene Gutiérrez.  She studied at Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV) in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. In her first professional work, Gutiérrez approaches the changes in Ceuta as a consequence of the construction of the fence that separates Spain and Morocco, Europe and Africa, since 1995. 


The film opens with a two-minute lateral tracking shot of the Ceuta naval fortress; her voice over states: “I’ve been living in the border for four months, he told me. It is time to leave Morocco. I want to arrive in Ceuta, Spain. Take this mobile phone, it’s full of videos. I don’t know what is going to happen tonight. Four of us don’t know how to swim. Soon, with God’s help, we’ll arrive in Europe. I’m also going there. Ah, then we’ll meet again and you can give me back the phone.” This is how Gutiérrez recounts her encounter with Nuel Papy, a young man from Cameroon, and how she got access to the videos she ultimately used for her work.


Right after this encounter, we see several shots of the same fortress, this time shot in Super-8. Several images of the mountains near Ceuta and the sea follow, capturing a time, Gutiérrez states, in which there were no fences. Cut to a series of digital videos, almost in square format, highly pixelated, shot with a mobile phone. Over images of precarious tents, made of plastic and branches in the middle of a forest, Nuel Papy’s voice works as testimony, denouncing: “this is where I live in Morocco. Yes, as you can see, it’s my house, inside the forest” (original in English).


Step by step, the documentary reveals how it functions as an archival device. As spectators, we are in front of three different audiovisual materials: in order, firstly, the video images captured by Gutiérrez on contemporary Ceuta; secondly, the Super-8 footage, shot decades ago, by the filmmakers’ father and, lastly, Nuel Papy’s recordings in his transit from mount Chef Bandit to Ceuta. This is a visually fascinating documentary, creating a dialogue between different memoristic, technological and geopolitical layers that are juxtaposed within the film (Cerdán and Fernández Labayen, 2015). Through the combination of the familial and other people’s archives, the film builds up an intermediary position to approach the filmmaker’s experiences, a descendent of a middle-class Spanish family, and the violent process of psychic and physical mobility that migrants experience when trying to cross the border. The filmmaker’s emphatetic position, as a citizen that aspires to understand the transformation in her native city but also to intervene in it, as an artist and activist, unveils a series of enunciations that aim to shape the political, religious, racial and cultural meaning of a border space (Fernández Labayen y Gutiérrez, 2021). The father’s recordings acquire new meanings through her daughter’s camera, which creates the same frames in the same spaces and cultural events, finding the chasm through which they have acquired new meanings, via the construction of a physical border and its systems of surveillance and exclusion. In these moments of iconographic similarity between both frames and taking into account the obvious temporal distance, a feeling of estrangement comes to the fore. It is the filmmaker’s estrangement, who returns to her native city after a long personal and educational journey (we shouldn’t forget that Gutiérrez had been away from Ceuta for fifteen years before shooting this film); our estrangement as spectators, witnessing the emotional and physical distance that the filmmaker experiences, and the estrangement to witness how these young migrants are illegalized in their transit to Spain. As Arjun Appadurai writes in his article: “Archive and Aspiration”:

“Migration tends to be accompanied by a confusion about what exactly has been lost and thus of what needs to be recovered or remembered. This confusion leads to an often deliberate effort to construct a variety of archives, ranging from the most intimate and personal (such is the memory of one’s earlier bodily self) to the most public and collective, which usually take the form of shared narrative and practices” (Appadurai, 2003: 21).

And, indeed, in this fight for access to space and the social and cultural meanings and privileges attached to it (and denied in Nuel’s and his African companions’ cases), the filmmaker finds the starting point of the conflict (and her film) with a beautiful audiovisual solution: in the last seconds, a series of establishing shots of the steep Ceuta African coast is accompanied by the voices of contemporary migrants, who, in French, discuss the possibility of going up to mount Chef Bandit. The familial and other people’s archives, filmic and digital, touristic and of survival, coexist and contaminate each other, connecting the intimate with the public and collective, coming together in the final moments of Diarios de la frontera.

Autoarchive and migrant memories in Viaje de ida y vuelta / Round Trip (Destiny Osarumwense y Obehi Ottasowie, 2020, 22’ 40’’)

Video 2. Round Trip (Destiny Osarumwense & Obehi Ottasowie, 2020)

The second example we want to discuss derives from an activity carried out within our research project, in the shape of audiovisual creation and migration workshops, with the collaboration of different associations and institutions that focus on audiovisual pedagogy. An example of this is Viaje de ida y vuelta / Round Trip (Destiny Osarumwense y Obehi Ottasowie, 2020), which is fully available in the Archive of Cinematic Mobility. This short film has been done in collaboration with the social and educational project 12Nubes (https://12nubes.kalezkalevg.org/presentacion/), an innovative educational initiative that utilizes digital media to participate within the social fabric of the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. In Viaje de ida y vuelta, the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid research project collaborated with 12Nubes in the conception and realization of a workshop for diverse young people in order to reflect upon migratory experiences.


Initially, the workshop was made with a total of 23 students, between 14 and 22 years old, mostly enrolled in the Instituto de Educación Secundaria Francisco de Vitoria; many of them had already participated in previous 12Nubes workshops. Out of the 23 students, ultimately seven participated in Viaje de ida y vuelta. They were joined by their families, both residents of Vitoria and in their native countries—that is, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Morocco, Nigeria and Mali. 


From the beginning, the workshop proposed different working methodologies to approach migration. Firstly, as a key issue, it is worth mentioning the creation and/or compilation of own and other people’s materials that capture narratives and representation on the migrant’s own experiences. The goal of this initiative was two-fold: on the one hand, to portray a memory of human displacement, a memory that is both intimate and collective, which has been typically restricted to the familiar space, and its oral transmission; and, on the other hand, to foster intergroup, intergenerational and community dialogue that is able to renegotiate  and reformulate the socio-affective notions of origin, identity and belonging (Fernández Labayen, Gutierrez and Moya Jorge, in press). 


For all this, it was necessary to emphasize the importance of the generation of a personal archive dealing with migration by each participant. Immediately, this auto-archive evolved into the necessity to find oral, visual and written sources, which would allow students to reflect on their own migratory, personal and familial experiences. As the documentary shows, the participants contrasted their knowledge about their own origins, in many cases blurred, with the statements, letters, videos and audios sent by their relatives. At the same time, the filmmakers established a dialogue between these private materials with other free access archives, images from Google Earth or videos they produced as interviews in public spaces, and music related to their identity, such as the tune that closes the piece. Curiously, and despite the proliferation and availability of archival sources of all kinds after the arrival of digital technology (Burton, 2006), in the case of this workshop the lack of archival materials dealing with the personal situations of the participants catalyzed a critical take on available archives. Additionally, the process remarked the importance of generating one’s own archives, contrasting them with available sources to subvert and alter them, establishing a productive dialogue.  Let’s return to Appadurai: “For migrants more than for others, the archive is a map. It is a guide to the uncertainties of identity-building under adverse conditions. The archive is a search for the memories that count and not a home for memories with a preordained significance” (Appadurai, 2003: 23).


As represented in the different moments of Viaje de ida y vuelta, the cartographic reference encompasses, as Appadurai mentions, this archival dimension and the search and construction of and identity, which is related to it. This process of gathering, cataloguing and generating the archive, both in Diarios de frontera (and Gutiérrez’s subsequent trajectory as a filmmaker), Viaje de ida y vuelta and the 12Nubes initiative, as well as own our experiences working in the Archive of Cinematic Mobility, has prevented these videos from being lost; furthermore, it has also facilitated their analysis, study and public discussion. In addition, they have turned into films and collaborative experiences. All of them have thus evolved into social interventions in current debates on migration. 


This article is part of research carried out within the project “Cartografías del cine de movilidad en el Atlántico hispánico” (CSO2017-85290-P), funded by Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación/Agencia Estatal de Investigación del Gobierno de España and fondos FEDER.



Appadurai, Arjun (2003) “Archive and Aspiration”, en Joke Brouwer y Arjen Mulder (eds.), Information Is Alive: Art And Theory On Archiving And Retrieving Data, Rotterdam: V_2, 14-25. Available at https://pzwiki.wdka.nl/mw-mediadesign/images/c/ce/ArjunAppadurai_ArchiveandAspiration.pdf


Burton, Antoinette (2006). “Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories”. En Burton, Antoinette (ed.). Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-24.


Cerdán, Josetxo and Fernández Labayen, Miguel (2015). “Mediating migration in Ceuta, Melilla and Barcelona: border thinking and transnationalism from below in independent documentary”, Transnational Cinemas 6.2, pp. 137-155.


Fernández Labayen, Miguel and Gutiérrez, Irene (2021). “Digital placemaking as survival tactics: Sub-Saharan migrants’ videos at the Moroccan-Spanish border”. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 27(3), pp. 664-678.  

Fernández Labayen, Miguel, Gutiérrez, Irene and Moya Jorge, Tamara (in press). “Migración y red educativa: la automediación como práctica intercultural”. Culture and Education.

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
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Universidad Carlos III de Madrid